Study: True secret to thriving on less sleep


WEB DESK: Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Sleep Lab at Michigan University US Kimberly Fenn has identified interventions that could counteract the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation.

Professor Fenn revealed that following an initial research on the relationship between sleep deprivation and false confessions, her team conducted a research and findings indicated that there was no substitute for sleep.

She said that everyone feels better after a good night’s sleep, and the absence of adequate rest can have profound negative impacts on our mental faculties.

Professor Fenn said: “So, what measures can be taken to mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation? In other words, how can one function optimally with less sleep?”

Cognitive impairment due to sleep deprivation:

For years, scientists have recognised that sleep deprivation diminished the capacity to sustain attention. When individuals were tasked with monitoring a computer screen and responding when a red dot appears – a seemingly straightforward assignment – sleep-deprived participants were far more prone to attention lapses. They may fail to notice a bright red dot and miss the response window by half a second.

However, the attention lapses were due to an accumulation of sleep pressure, being more frequent during times in the body’s 24-hour circadian cycle when sleep was expected.

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Meanwhile, a research into the impact of sleep deprivation on more complex forms of thinking has yielded mixed results. Professor Fenn and her team embarked on an exploration of how one night of sleeplessness affects diverse types of thinking. Participants engaged in cognitive tasks in the evening before being randomly assigned to either sleep at home or remain awake overnight in the lab. Those who slept returned in the morning for further cognitive tasks.

In addition to attention impairments, we discovered that sleep deprivation contributed to more errors in place-keeping. Place-keeping involved following a sequence of steps accurately, without omission or repetition. This was akin to preparing a recipe from memory, ensuring you neither forget an ingredient nor double-add the salt.

Examining caffeine as a sleep substitute:

Professor Fenn revealed that her team’s next endeavor was to explore potential substitutes for sleep. If you had inadequate sleep the previous night, your instinct might lead you to reach for a cup of coffee or an energy drink.

A 2022 survey indicated that over 90 per cent of sampled American adults consumed caffeine in some form daily. We aimed to assess whether caffeine could help maintain attention and prevent place-keeping errors following sleep deprivation.

Interestingly, we found that caffeine substantially enhanced attention in sleep-deprived participants, yielding performance akin to those who had a full night’s sleep. Administering caffeine to well-rested individuals also boosted their performance. Hence, caffeine aided everyone in sustaining attention, not solely those who were sleep-deprived. This outcome aligned with similar findings from other studies.

However, we discovered that caffeine did not lessen place-keeping errors in either the sleep-deprived group or the well-rested group. This implied that while caffeine may assist in staying awake for activities like playing games, it might not significantly improve performance on demanding cognitive tasks, such as excelling in algebra exams.

Naps as sleep substitutes:

“Of course, caffeine offers an artificial means of replacing sleep. It also occurred to us that the most effective replacement for sleep might simply be more sleep. You are likely familiar with the energy and performance boost attributed to daytime naps. It stands to reason that a nocturnal nap might yield a comparable effect,” Professor Fenn said.

Professor Fen said that her team allowed some participants to take naps lasting either 30 or 60 minutes during an overnight deprivation period from 4 am to 6 am. This timeframe coincided with the base of alertness in the circadian cycle.

“Crucially, we observed that participants who napped performed no better than those who stayed awake all night, whether on simple attention tasks or complex place-keeping assignments,” she added.

In essence, a middle-of-the-night nap did not tangibly enhance cognitive performance the following morning after a night of overall sleep deprivation.

Prioritise Your Sleep:

While caffeine may help with staying awake and boosting alertness, its effectiveness may be limited in tasks demanding complex thought. And though a brief nap might alleviate fatigue on nights when staying awake was necessary, its impact on cognitive performance was likely modest.

“In summary, sufficient sleep is imperative for the mind and brain, and there is simply no substitute for it,” the professor concluded.

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